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Book Recommendation: Start, Stop, or Grow?

Charlie Anastasi
July 13, 2022
8 mins

Last year, I met with the team at Gray Associates to learn about their program evaluation tools and consulting services. I was really impressed by how much insight I pulled out of a handful of interactions.

So when I saw a recent advertisement for Start, Stop, or Grow?, a new book written by the CEO and founder of Gray, Bob Atkins, I quickly ordered a copy and finished it this past weekend.

I found the book helpful in thinking through how we manage programs at Rize as well as how we consult our partners to manage their Rize programs. I would recommend this book to presidents, provosts and CFOs interested in improving how they assess and maintain their academic portfolio. It is a quick, practical read.

Below, I’ve summarized a few of the key insights I took away from the book. If you happen to pick it up, or if you have any other book recommendations for us, we’d love to hear your thoughts!

Insight #1: Evaluation Frameworks

Atkins provides several helpful frameworks that I hope to implement into our work at Rize.

Framework #1: Start, Stop, or Grow: After conducting a program evaluation process, Atkins suggests assigning one of five tags to each program you assessed. Start, Sunset (Stop), Sustain, Fix, or Grow.

While Rize is often focused on the “Start” tag, I appreciate the fact that four of the five tags are related to existing programs. Too often, we get lured into an inertial trap of simply maintaining the status quo with existing programs. But, every dollar and hour we invest into the status quo are resources we could be allocating elsewhere! Some existing programs may require more resources to succeed or justify extra investment dollars to grow even larger. Reducing curricular breadth in one department might actually “Fix” a low-margin program while creating the budget to “Start” or “Grow” a program that could win market share with more resources. This applies at Rize as well. The time and money we spend on Digital Marketing competes with Computer Science and competes with any new program we might want to build.

I am maybe stretching a bit here, but this framework reminded me of the concept of zero-based budgeting (ZBB) where all expenses must be justified for each new budget period. ZBB can be a bit extreme for many organizations, but its principles force you to more critically assess where your resources are being deployed.

Framework #2: Mission, Standards, Market, Margin: When evaluating new or existing programs, Atkins recommends aggregating and assessing data in the four aforementioned buckets. A quick sentence on each:

  • Mission: Does the program support the institutional mission?
  • Standards: Is the program consistent with accreditor requirements and institutional expectations for student outcomes?
  • Markets: Is there student and labor market demand for the program? Is competition manageable?
  • Margins: Will the program consume financial resources or generate them?

While all are important, I have found many LCMC members are more natural at assessing mission and standards than markets and margin. This year, our Academic Partnerships team has made it a priority to help collaboratively define markets and target margins when working with new partners on program development. We have found it incredibly helpful to have a shared sense of the target market for a program as well as an enrollment target to mutually strive for.

Insight #2: Curricular Efficiency Before Program Closure

Higher ed headlines over the last few years have been filled with program closure announcements. At Rize, we’ve been working with LCMC partners to conduct financial analyses and assess how course sharing can reduce deficits and keep existing programs open. Program closures can create a negative, self-fulfilling cycle where fewer programs and negative headlines lead to fewer students and a need to cut even more. Further, improving the efficiency of a big, well-enrolled program by 20% can outweigh the savings from cutting a small program 100%.

Atkins largely agrees with this assessment: cutting small programs often generates limited savings and creates revenue risk. Although program cuts may save less than you think, Atkins spends a lot of time on curricular efficiency as a powerful budgeting concept.

Curricular sprawl is a “pervasive” issue on almost every campus. With so many courses and so much variation, the average cost per student credit hour can range from under $100 to over $2,500 - with an average often in the $250 - $300 range (that is an average of $750 - $900 per student per 3-credit course!). Strategies including better course cycling, content consolidation, and yes, working with a course sharing partner, can generate meaningful savings. Atkins says it is realistic, albeit nontrivial, to lower cost per student credit hour 20% by analyzing curricular efficiency.

Insight #3: Academic Portfolio Theory

This might be due to my background in finance, but I found the application of “Modern Portfolio Theory” concepts to an academic portfolio intuitive and enlightening. For example, Atkins talks about diversification in the context of an academic portfolio. At a program level, if the demand for all of your programs tends to increase or decrease in lockstep, broad changes in the economy or regulatory environment can create a lot of concentrated enrollment risk. At a student level, having diversification among learner types (traditional, adult, etc.) is also a way to increase the “risk-adjusted enrollment” of your academic portfolio.

If you have any other summer book recommendations, please send them my way! On my current higher ed list, I have:

  • The Great Upheaval: Recommended to me by several college presidents - one is even reading this with her board.
  • The Fifth Wave: While Crow’s book focuses on large-scale publics, I’m fascinated by the ASU story.
  • The Price You Pay for College: I loved reading Choosing College by Horn and Moesta because it is written for the college student, not colleges. I listened to the author, Rob Lieber, on the Future U podcast and like seeing things from the student perspective.
  • College of the Future: Okay, if you’ve made it this far, you get rewarded with a shameless plug. I will not be reading this one again, but a few presidents recently confirmed it was a quick, practical read like Start, Stop, Grow!!

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